In the hypercompetitive sales environment, the demands on sales managers are constantly increasing. Today’s sales managers are told to be supervisors, trainers and coaches. Recent trends suggest that managers must wear one more hat: mentor. In order to retain top talent on your team, you must be able to mentor and grow your sales representatives. Research from the Saratoga Institute suggests that over one third of employees who don’t receive regular mentoring will look for another job within a year.
What is it about mentoring that keeps good people around? Mentoring is concerned with helping your people grow to become the best representatives they can be. It is important to note that mentors aren’t trying to recreate versions of themselves. After all, not every representative is going to sell like you did in the field and trying to make them is a surefire way to create resistance. Instead, mentors look to build upon the natural strengths of their protégés while minimizing their weaknesses.
How do you know if you’re mentoring? Here are four key elements that separate managers from mentors:
Managers Supervise Performance, Mentors Supervise Learning
Mentoring is the act of assisting another person to learn, claims Chip Bell, author of Managers as Mentors. Mentors help their protégés gain knowledge or skills that would be unavailable or more difficult to attain otherwise. Managers, on the other hand, are most often tasked with getting performance out of their people. Moving into a mentoring role can be tricky for managers, since the process of helping representatives learn often involves having to observe initial failure. Representatives, seeking to demonstrate performance and impress their managers, are often hesitant to show incompetence in front of their managers. Both mentors and protégés must surrender to the mentoring relationship, meaning that they must stop attempting to control the outcome of the process. For mentoring to be effective, managers must convey to their representatives that they understand performance (however defined) will diminish in the short-term and are willing to accept this drop in the belief that performance will increase later. This is vital because representatives must be willing to fail in front of their manager in order to get the right feedback for improvement.
Managers Evaluate, Mentors Accept
Any effort to mentor must involve acceptance. Acceptance means allowing representatives to take risks without fearing the repercussions of negative evaluation. As mentioned above, failing is an essential part of learning. In order to fail, representatives must first be willing to take risks. Mentors must encourage protégés to take bold moves despite timidity and fear of failure. This can make mentoring difficult for managers because one of their primary roles is evaluator. Managers evaluate the work of subordinates, conduct performance evaluations and, in some cases, even have to rank their subordinates accordingly. In this environment, representatives will be cautious to take the bold risks necessary for growth, preferring to stay in the middle of the pack rather then stand out. Managers can’t entirely remove the evaluator section of their job description but they can rewrite it. Instead of comparing representatives to each other, compare representatives to where they were last year. In addition, make it clear that constructive criticism is not permanent and that negative evaluation is viewed as temporary. Conveying acceptance is the opening of the mentoring relationship.
Managers Direct, Mentors Advise
Advising is the main event of mentoring. The protégés are in the relationship because of the gifts mentors can offer and knowledge is the best gift mentors have. However, the way this gift is given can affect just how great a gift it is. Managers are trained to direct representatives, to give orders on what they should do or how they should do it in order to attain a performance goal. Mentoring focuses on attaining learning goals and outright direction can create resistance. Chip Bell outlines four steps for delivering advice while reducing resistance. First, clearly state the learning goal. Next, confirm agreement on the focus. Then, ask permission to give advice. Finally, state advice in the first person, avoiding phrases like “you ought to.” Throughout the process, remember that for advice giving to truly work, protégés must feel free not to follow the advice without risking the mentoring relationship.
Managers are Near-sighted, Mentors are Far-sighted
Mentoring is a long-term process because learning should be a continuous effort. As protégés gain new knowledge, new levels of learning come within reach. The ultimate goal of mentoring should be to develop self-sufficient learners committed to continuous improvement. Often, this can mean ending the formal mentoring relationship. Moving beyond the relationship can be difficult for mentors, especially if the managers are the mentors. Even if protégés need new mentors, often they still have to work under the old managers. While original managers will always need to be aware of what their representatives are learning, they must eventually yield their supervision of it. Managers can help reduce this tension by taking an active role in finding the new mentor or source of learning, even making the introduction if necessary. Former mentors must also be slow to follow up on how the learning process is going, their protégés are still testing the waters with new mentors and must not be tempted to swim back.
Mentoring is a useful tool for growing and developing representatives and a vital tool for retaining top talent. However, the process of mentoring is not without tension. Learners must be encouraged to take risks, fail and then extract the lessons from failure. Often managers are not trained to perform the actions vital to this type of relationship. By supervising learning, accepting representatives’ risk-taking, giving advice properly and developing a far-sighted vision for representatives’ learning plan, managers can become mentors.
David Burkus is a leadership coach/consultant and has taught at the university level. He holds a master’s degree in Organizational Dynamics and is a doctoral student in the field of leadership. He can be reached at email@example.com